HERO OF THE GAME

HERO OF THE GAME

From Chicken Soup for the Baseball Fan's Soul

Hero of the Game

You can get everything in life you want, if you will just help enough other people get what they want.

Zig Ziglar

Little League coaches aren’t supposed to have favorites.

But I did. I couldn’t help it.

His name was Clyde.

I called him “Clyde the Glide,” one of those silly sports nicknames given to a player by a coach on the first day of practice.

I did it as a way to remember a new kid’s name. Little did I know that for the rest of my life I would never forget him.

Clyde wasn’t a glider. He was a lumberer.

He was big for ten years old, but extremely uncoordinated. He was a special-needs student and, because of it, was often ridiculed by his peers.

He wasn’t a good ballplayer. That was okay, I figured, because I wasn’t a very good coach.

I was only twenty-three, a young news reporter working in Williamsport, Pennsylvania, the Little League Capital of the World.

I had extra time on my hands, and I loved baseball. So I volunteered to help an inner-city league a few blocks from my apartment.

It was a tremendous departure from what I had known as a kid. Baseball had become little more than cheap babysitting. With the exception of my comanager, my players’ parents weren’t involved with the team. Only a few mothers regularly showed at games—no fathers were ever in the stands.

Most of my players didn’t know the rules of the game. Only one or two had any skills at all.

Then there was Clyde. He was the worst player on a below-average team in a bad league. Still, he kept smiling through all of the strikeouts and errors in right field and taunts by opposing players. He kept trying. He wouldn’t give up. And that kept me smiling. Day after day. Game after game.

His first hit was awesome. A blooper right over the head of a shortstop who moments before had been screaming, “He can’t hit, can’t hit.”

I felt great at that moment. Nothing, though, could prepare me for Clyde’s day of redemption near the end of the season. After Clyde’s bloop single, he went into a slump, striking out in nearly every at bat.

I had noticed he was stepping away from the pitcher each time a pitch was thrown. I assumed he was scared to be plunked with the ball. So one day at practice I put a line of bats behind his feet. And, sure enough, when I threw the ball to him, he instinctively stepped backward and tripped on the bats.

I kept pitching to him with the bats behind his feet until he finally stopped moving out of the batter’s box. I thought I had cured a weakness. I thought I was brilliant.

Instead, I had created a disaster.

In our next game, we were trailing one of the better teams in the league by six runs in the fifth inning. Bases were loaded with two outs and Clyde, our last hitter in the lineup, was up.

He had already been hit by the pitcher once that day. And, again, the ball hit him, this time in the center of the helmet.

I rushed from the third-base coach’s box to see if he was okay. But before I got there, Clyde was up and smiling and heading to first base.

That’s when the umpire roared, “You’re out. Third out.”

The ump took me aside and explained that Clyde had leaned over the plate and interfered with the pitch. In fact, he had been doing it all day and the ump finally felt he had to call it.

I was stunned. Clyde had never leaned into a pitch before, at least not until I did that stupid thing with the bats behind his feet. Now he was heading in the opposite direction and being called for interference.

I felt responsible. I felt sick. And it got worse.

As I walked away from the umpire, I realized my own players were hurling insults at Clyde. He was trembling, inconsolable.

I looked to his mom for help. I always could count on her to be at the games. She sat motionless in the bleachers. She then bit her bottom lip. There were tears in her eyes. She didn’t say a word.

I finally convinced Clyde to head back to the field, but he never looked up. He just stood in right field, head down, glove dangling at the end of his left hand. His chest continued to heave. He didn’t stop crying.

In the bottom half of the last inning, my team rallied again.

This time Clyde came to bat with one out and two men on base.

He didn’t lift his bat. He didn’t shuffle his feet. He didn’t move a single muscle for five straight pitches. And he drew a walk.

He eventually reached third with two outs and our best hitter up in a tied ballgame.

I gave Clyde advice on what to do. Told him in which situation he needed to run. He nodded, but I don’t think he heard a word I said.

It’s tough to explain what happened next.

There was a ground ball to the shortstop that should have been an easy force at second or throw to first to end the game. But the shortstop saw Clyde breaking for the plate. And he threw home.

I yelled for Clyde to slide, but he didn’t. He never got dirty. The ball arrived seconds before Clyde—the final out of the game, for sure. That’s when something amazing happened. Clyde stopped dead in his tracks about two feet before home plate. And, with his arms swinging, he jumped high into the air and over the crouched catcher’s glove.

The bewildered catcher swiped at Clyde’s feet. The ball popped loose and Clyde landed with both feet firmly on home plate.

“Safe,” screamed the umpire.

Game over. We were unlikely winners.

Teammates mobbed an unlikely hero.

Instinctively, I hugged Clyde and then ushered him and his screaming teammates into the dugout.

I told them that I couldn’t be more proud of Clyde and how he had bounced back from the previous inning.

I then presented him with a pack of Big Red gum, my award for player of the game.

His teammates cheered. And Clyde smiled the largest smile I had ever seen on that always-smiling face.

After my speech, I gave Clyde one more hug and then patted his back as he leaped out of the dugout.

Clutching his gum in one hand, he dashed over to the bleachers. I stood and stared at his mother once again. This time, the tears were streaming down her face.

Dan Connolly

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